Fifth-Century Advice for 21st-Century Leaders

by Major John Mark Mattox, US Army

THE US ARMY'S preparations for entering the 21st century have been both deliberate and extensive. The futuristic Army XXI initiatives include, among other things, a thorough revision of doctrine and landmark initiatives in technological research, acquisition and logistics, force structure and personnel management. Any highly successful corporation must consider such things to secure its share of the emerging market and enhance the future bottom line.

But the Army is not a corporation spending the majority of its waking hours working to produce goods or services. To say that the Army seeks to secure a "market share," or worse, that it seeks to "corner" a market, would be merely to attempt a crass and superficial analogy that utterly misses the point of the Army's existence. Most important, the Army does not have a "bottom line" that even remotely resembles bottom lines in the corporate world. That is why budget-conscious government officials sometimes find it difficult to ascertain whether the Army is achieving its goals when it is not actually engaged in combat.

Fortunately, some who understand the US defense establishment's unique character have recognized that for the Army to successfully meet 21st-century challenges, good business techniques alone will not suffice. Future Army leaders will require, more than ever before, a commitment to those moral values that are the source of enduring strength in a free society.

However, we must be very clear that the Army cannot force an "updating" of morals in the same way that it can - and must - force an updating of its doctrinal, managerial and technological systems. These latter systems must keep pace with current technology. If they do not, they will be left behind as the rest of the world progresses. Moral values, on the other hand, are by their very nature immune to updating.

Indeed, any institution that seeks to "update" its moral values succeeds in doing nothing more than pulling up anchor and floating - often quite aimlessly and, perhaps, even perilously. To where does it float? Elsewhere. That is because a redefinition - which, in the case of morals, is what updating really amounts to - changes the institution's nature, character and direction. Whatever it was becomes something different.

Moreover, moral values, unlike technologies, are in an important sense "backward looking," not forward looking. That is why leadership manuals, unlike technical manuals, invoke images of moral heroes from the past, such as General George Washington at Valley Forge or Colonel Joshua Chamberlain at Gettysburg. Indeed, moral values tie us to ideas deeply rooted in the past. Although looking to the past for answers on important matters is hardly a popular idea, it has served military leaders of character well throughout the ages. This is so because moral truths do not change with time, nor do they appear as generational creations. For example, even if a generation or a whole society collectively pronounces a practice as "moral" - such as slavery in the antebellum South - the mere pronouncement does not make it so. The passage of time always bears out this point. Rather, morals are better described as the "fixed furniture" of the universe. They are discovered, not invented. It is precisely for this reason that it was wrong a thousand years ago for a soldier to lie, cheat or steal, it is still wrong today, and it will be wrong a thousand years hence.

Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that thoughtful, introspective past military leaders have made some discoveries concerning moral truths that could greatly benefit the US Army - a values-based institution - as it seeks to promote peace and stability in a world that sometimes pays only lip service to moral values.

Where to Look

There are, of course, many places from the past where one could look to gain insights into what constitute the enduring moral leadership values upon which truly successful armies are built. However, the fifth century A.D. holds some particularly valuable lessons in moral virtue for military leaders preparing to step into the 21st century.

Although temporally distant from the present, the fifth century, in certain important respects, was remarkably like our own day. Consider the parallels: the fifth century was a time of tremendous international political and military transformation. Rome, the Western world's only superpower, found itself engaged, or threatened with engagement, in numerous small-scale regional conflicts. Some of them were conventional wars, but the majority were military operations other than war. Nomadic, pastoral tribes from central Asia, such as the Huns, undertook troublesome insurgent operations that stretched the resources of a once-great Roman Imperial Army, so much so that the army found itself under increasingly stringent budgetary constraints and increasingly reliant upon the Roman equivalent of the national guard to "take up the slack." As if the Huns were not enough, Rome found the Vandals, a Germanic tribe from the north, an even less malleable adversary as Rome sought to shape its foreign policy. The Vandals overran Gaul and Spain and then sallied into North Africa.

It was in North Africa, however, that the Vandals encountered the influence of Augustine of Hippo, one of the greatest Romans of the time and by far the most important philosopher Africa has ever produced. Several of his more than 100 books are recognized universally as belonging among the world's greatest literary treasures. Moreover, for a thousand years following his death, Augustine's pronouncement on virtually any issue on which he took a position was considered the authoritative "last word" among European intellectuals.

Augustine was a Catholic bishop who was posthumously canonized as a saint. Membership in the profession of arms would have been incongruous with the demands of his priestly pursuits. Nevertheless, from among over 200 of his surviving letters, some of which were written to soldiers fighting in North Africa, modern military leaders can find some of the most profound expressions that can be found anywhere, from any period of history, of what it means to be a morally virtuous military leader.1

Marcellinus: Translating Moral Theory into Practice

One of Augustine's correspondents, Marcellinus, was a Roman officer. He was given an assignment not unlike one a 21st-century military leader might expect to receive. He was commissioned by Emperor Honorarius to convene a conference in North Africa to resolve a contentious dispute, known in history as the "Donatist Controversy," which had erupted repeatedly into violence short of general war. Marcellinus found himself in the position of having to undertake a protracted peace-enforcing operation. Although he was unable to achieve a solution that pleased everyone, his letters to Augustine and Augustine's replies clearly indicate that he was a leader intent on doing the right thing, even at great personal sacrifice.

Augustine recognized Marcellinus as a military leader of character. Hence, Augustine was able to teach him some important leadership principles that probably would have eluded one less sensitive to the need to do the right thing for the right reason.

Augustine pointed out to his willing pupil that the popular view of ethics was nothing more than a set of behavioral rules that truly constituted an impoverished view of what it means to live and to lead morally. The moral "rules of engagement" cannot be reduced to an algorithm; they require thoughtful application in both war and peace.

To solidify his point, Augustine used the analogy of a famous physician who prescribed a remedy to a sick man. The treatment worked; so when, on a future occasion, the man became sick again, he attempted a self-diagnosis and prescribed for himself the remedy that the doctor had given him previously. However, this time the man only became sicker. When he went to the physician for an explanation of why the cure did not work the second time, the physician said that although the symptoms may have appeared to be the same, the difference in the man's present circumstances dictated an altogether different treatment.2

Continuing his explanation to Marcellinus, Augustine pointed out that a leader of character will, by analogy, look beyond the letter of the moral rule to assess how to apply it to the nuances of a different set of circumstances. For example, the moral military leader who truly cares for the welfare of his subordinates may be willing to risk criticism for administering different punishments to two soldiers for the same offense when he judges that individualized treatment will best serve the long-term interests of them both. Marcellinus' mentor was by no means advocating some sort of "situational ethics" for soldiers. He simply wanted Marcellinus to understand that true virtue includes not only a knowledge of moral principles but also how to apply them in diverse circumstances.

Future military leaders will have to cope with a staggeringly broad spectrum of moral circumstances. Almost certainly they will find themselves operating among peoples who do not embrace their values. In fact, they might find themselves among peoples whose moral sensitivities have been dulled by protracted civil war in which indiscriminate killing has become the norm. Such settings will require military leaders of character who can correctly judge -on tactical grounds and also on moral ones - when to take life and when to preserve it.

The difference between wartime and peacetime is great. Nevertheless, war does not license the jettisoning of moral values. War is not an amoral condition. Rather, if ever there is a time when one stands in need of the restraining influence of moral values, it is during war, and Augustine understood that. Our future leaders must never forget this. In the information-age wars, every pull of the trigger and every civilian casualty will be subject to public scrutiny. Military leaders will be expected to ensure that every shot fired is both tactically and morally appropriate. Americans simply will not accept another My Lai.

As Augustine informed Marcellinus, he saw no necessary conflict between military and moral imperatives. Whatever conflict one might perceive to exist between the two was resolvable by applying unchanging moral principles to both concerns. Augustine described conduct in war for Marcellinus this way: leaders of character will fight wars not only with a military aim, but also with a moral aim. "Wars might be waged by the good," said Augustine, "in order that those vices might be abolished which ought, under a just government, to be either extirpated or suppressed."3

From this perspective, the soldier is not merely the executioner hired by the state to do its most unsavory work. Rather, the soldier's work, properly understood, is to defend the defenseless, guarantee justice and restore moral virtue. The military leader is vested with the charge to help soldiers understand their high calling's true nature, and ensure the proper use of the special trust that is placed in them. For the military leader, this implies that moral leadership sometimes requires both the leader and the led to bear burdens in the name of self-sacrifice that cold, hard justice alone would not require them to bear. Thus, while a 21st-century repeat of Sherman's march to the sea might pass the Clausewitzian test for strategic adequacy, it could also leave in its wake such gratuitous suffering that the world might view the US Army as having ceded the moral high ground merely in the name of continuing politics by other means.4

Another valuable lesson Augustine taught Marcellinus was that revenge is never a good motive for military action. Even if the policy motivations that underlie the order for military action are founded on revenge, true soldierly integrity demands that the executors of that action must purge themselves of all desire for mere revenge. The military leader bent on vengeance loses

perspective and stops focusing on the moral imperative to allow no more violence than is necessary to accomplish the military mission and starts focusing on giving the enemy his or her due. The long moral tradition of which Augustine is a part points out, and history at large attests, that retaliation and reprisal, if they serve any moral purpose at all, serve it only as measures of last resort. That is why General Ulysses S. Grant is still remembered for being devoid of a spirit of vengeance and retribution as he accepted General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox. Conversely, the international community clearly and unhappily agrees that the continuing bloodshed in Bosnia and the Middle East is a classic example of a cycle of vengeance.

Of course, the military leader must be willing to execute such measures of violence as are necessary to accomplish the assigned mission. He also must maintain the strict discipline of subordinates. Indeed, the enemy's aims often cannot be countered without a display of what Augustine called "benevolent severity."5 For instance, if the military leader merely seeks the destruction of his enemies, he might only at the risk of losing personal virtue - a thing that is very difficult to recover. Hence, Augustine warned that leaders "must be on [their] guard, lest, through desire for revenge, [they] lose patience itself - a virtue which is of more value than all which an enemy can, in spite of resistance, take away from [them]."6

Military leaders might, Augustine opined, sometimes find themselves the personal objects of injustices inflicted by malevolent subordinates, peers or superiors. Indeed, as long as human nature remains what it is, ill-intentioned people will be found, and an army is not exempt from their interference. Even in these cases, however, Augustine argued that a military leader of character will tend to forgive and forbear. As pertaining to such matters, Augustine said, "Why should we prolong the debate, and not rather begin by inquiring for ourselves how it was possible that the Republic of Rome was governed and aggrandized from insignificance and poverty to greatness and opulence by men who, when they had suffered wrong, would rather pardon than punish the offender; or how Cicero, addressing Caesar, the greatest statesman of his time, said, in praising his character, that he has wont to forget nothing but the wrongs which were done to him?" 7 Indeed, "nothing is more serviceable to the State," said Augustine, than the leader who patiently bears the inconvenience of personal injustice; for such a leader thereby sets an example of the kind of behavior calculated to lead to a mending of the offender's ways.8

Some contemporary leaders will find this emphasis on patience and forbearance discomfiting, to say the least. Some find it altogether ridiculous - a mere impediment to "getting the job done." Yet others will sigh and begrudgingly accept it as an unfortunate trapping of political correctness. For Augustine, however, the matter was not superficial at all. Rather, it was a matter that cut right to the ethical enterprise's core: the consideration, not merely of how one acts on the outside, but of how one is on the inside. Morality was for Augustine a highly intimate matter of the heart. If Augustine were alive today, surely he would advise the military leader to weigh his actions not only according to the immediate effects of those actions on the battlefield, but also according to how comfortably he could reflect upon those actions a week, a month, or as Augustine might say, an eternity later. Certainly the 21st-century military leader will not have the luxury of making choices that affect only a secluded locale for an isolated moment. The world will be far too interconnected for that.

In addition to the philosophical, there is also a practical dimension to Augustine's counsels. Wars are to be carried out with "the benevolent design that, after the resisting nations have been conquered, provision may be more easily made for enjoying in peace the mutual bond of piety and justice."9 Just as important as winning the war, Augustine recognized, is winning the subsequent peace. Losing the peace will merely breed more war in time, as wars in this century, to include World War I and, unfortunately, the Gulf War, attest.

Boniface: Standards of Personal Conduct

Another Augustine military correspondent, Boniface, served as the Roman province of Africa governor. He, like Marcellinus, was one whom Augustine affectionately called a distinguished "son."10 He was a controversial figure, however, because, at critical junctures, he selfishly manipulated Roman foreign policy pertaining to the Vandals. As a result, he ended up with a military crisis of his own making. His task was forcefully expelling the Vandals, who had entered Africa at his own ill-advised invitation.

When, at one point, Boniface considered leaving his military command to become a monk, Augustine vigorously urged him to retain his generalship and to fight valiantly for the survival of Roman Africa. As high a calling as Augustine regarded the monastic life to be, he considered Boniface's soldierly calling to be important too.11 Augustine also upbraided Boniface for immoral behavior he deemed to be beneath the dignity of a great military leader. "Let the manner of your life be adorned by chastity, sobriety and moderation."12 As Augustine observed, it is nothing less than disgraceful that a military leader who can subdue others on the battlefield should be unable to subdue his own self-destructive moral vices.13 As recent events at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, and elsewhere attest, no success as a soldier - no number of Good Conduct Medals - can compensate adequately for a military leader's failure to subdue selfish passions at his soldiers' expense.

While unbecoming conduct is surely a reflection of one's most deeply held values (or lack of them), the influence of one's conduct extends far beyond the individual. As is well known, for better or for worse, subordinates tend to follow the leader's example; and example is a most infectious thing. As Augustine informed Marcellinus, and would have been well justified in reminding Boniface, a "most illustrious Roman historian declares plainly the time when the army of the Roman people began to be wanton and drunken; to set a high value on statues, paintings and embossed vases; to take these by violence both from individuals and from the State; to rob temples and pollute everything, sacred and profane. When therefore the avarice and grasping violence of the corrupt and abandoned manners of the time spared neither men nor those whom they esteemed as gods, the famous honour and safety of the [Roman] commonwealth began to decline."14

However, Augustine's greatest hope was not that Boniface would act virtuously; he also wanted Boniface to be virtuous. "Here is counsel," said Augustine. "Show that you are a brave man. . . . [O]vercome your inward and invisible enemies, that is to say, your passions themselves."15 Augustine knew that a truly virtuous military leader would be, first and foremost, the master of self.

By every measure a realist when it came to his appraisal of human nature, Augustine was under no illusion that, as long as the present order of human life remains, there would ever be a total cessation of the shedding of blood in war. However, he also understood a lesson that eludes some military leaders: morality demands that soldiers accomplish their mission with minimum loss of life, not only to friendly forces, but to the enemy as well. As he said to Boniface, "Let necessity, therefore, and not your will, slay the enemy who fights against you. As violence is used toward him who rebels and resists, so mercy is due to the vanquished or the captive, especially in the case in which future troubling of the peace is not to be feared."16 If Augustine were alive today, one of his aims surely would be to educate military leaders on the importance of understanding that we do not minimize the loss that we visit upon the enemy simply to save bullets; we minimize the loss because it is the right thing to do - because morality demands it. Leaders intent on conveying this kind of perspective to their troops will act differently than those who do not.

Augustine understood that the military leader who seeks to minimize death and destruction simply because doing so meshes well with the traditional "economy of force" principle could, by that same logic, feel at liberty to kill excessively when the logistic trains are well established and supplies are constantly flowing. Indeed, Augustine appears to be one of the first to argue for the efficacy of what we now call the "surgical strike." As he elsewhere pointed out, "he whose aim is to kill is not careful how he wounds, but he whose aim is to cure is cautious with his lancet; for the one seeks to destroy what is sound, the other that which is decaying."17

Although most people probably associate surgical strikes with the employment of "smart" munitions from afar, the discretion that the metaphor suggests applies equally well to close combat situations. After all, close combat was the only kind of combat known to Augustine, who understood that the ultimate measure of success in military operations lies not merely in the accomplishment of the operational objective, but in the realization of lasting peace and justice that war is used instrumentally to establish. President Abraham Lincoln implied as much at Gettysburg and in his second inaugural address, when he suggested that the key to ensuring that the Union dead had not died in vain lay in the realization of a just and lasting peace.

Throughout his correspondence with Boniface, Augustine's advice is not as nuanced as is his advice to Marcellinus, but then again, how could it be? No military leader can expect to fathom the depths of what ideas such as morality and character really mean unless he is striving personally to practice the same - something Boniface evidently did not always do. With increased practice comes increased ability to recognize what counts as truly virtuous leadership. Perhaps more important, practice enables one to come ever closer to the aim of internalizing the lofty ideals associated with having a virtuous character. As one internalizes these ideals, one no longer views them merely as behavioral constraints imposed by some external law. Rather, one recognizes the ideals as one's own, and this identification with virtuous principles serves to identify the possessor of these principles as a military leader of character - a truly virtuous person.

Augustine knew that if Boniface was to have any chance whatsoever to succeed at his formidable task of ridding North Africa of the Vandals - particularly since Boniface was himself the cause of their destructive presence there - he could do it only if he commanded his troops' genuine respect, and that respect would not result merely from telling his subordinates, "I am virtuous." It would result from his ability to say, "Follow me, and do as I do." We have every reason to believe that 21st-century soldiers will be as well known for their ability to spot a phony as soldiers are today. Boniface needed true moral virtue, because virtue cannot be faked.

Darius: "Traditional" Soldierly Virtues

Exactly what virtues did Boniface need? He needed the same virtues for successful military leadership in the fifth century that successful 21st-century military leaders will need. The core of the Army's emerging Leadership Doctrine XXI features a list of virtues that would surprise no one intent on being a model military leader, whether in the fifth century or at present: Augustine, too, understood the importance of soldiers' exhibiting the traits suggested by these virtues. The leader who does not seek to possess these virtues is, in commensurate measure, less a leader than he should be. Augustine also knew that the possession of virtue implies much more than the ability to recite a list of words. Each of these words stands for something profound. Augustine clearly established this point in an epistle to Darius, a distinguished Roman army officer sent to North Africa by the Empress Placidia on a peacemaking mission to reconcile Boniface and the imperial court. Darius succeeded at his peacemaking mission with Boniface and skillfully negotiated a truce with the Vandals, who originally had come to Africa at Boniface's invitation.

After congratulating Darius on the success of his mission, Augustine commended Darius' soldiers for their moral virtue - surely a reflection, by Augustine's estimation, of Darius' own character.19 In doing so, he drew right from the US Army Leadership Doctrine XXI list of virtues: he commended them, first, for their competent performance of duty (a thing worthy, he said, of singular honor); second, for their bravery; and third, for their loyalty - a thing worthy of even higher praise. Next, however, he provided a remarkable insight into that virtue which our current list denominates as "respect."20

Augustine thus enjoined Darius to understand that respect alone is not enough. He also needed to internalize a genuine appreciation for the sanctity of human life so that he and his soldiers could sense the gravity of their moral duty to preserve life wherever possible and to destroy life only when unavoidable. This higher perspective concerning the correct moral aim for which wars are (or ought to be) fought is the perspective that moral military leaders must maintain if they are to fill the measure of their high calling as defenders of the defenseless and guardians of peace and justice. In essence, "it is a higher glory still to stay war itself with a word, than to slay men with the sword, and to procure or maintain peace by peace, not by war. For those who fight, if they are good men, doubtless seek for peace; nevertheless it is through blood. Your mission, however, is to prevent the shedding of blood. Yours, therefore, is the privilege of averting that calamity which others are under the necessity of producing."21

While understanding respect on that level is necessary, Augustine's insight illustrates that it is clearly insufficient. It illustrates that respect is a virtue that entails far more than merely refraining from racial or gender slurs. Augustine would want Darius to understand that a similar point could be made about all of the virtues found on the Army's list.

Augustine lived during a watershed of history; so do we. Moreover, that watershed was replete with extraordinary challenges for the military leader - not just the routine, albeit important questions of technical and tactical competence, but also perennial questions such as "What kind of military leader should I be?" That same question faces us today.

Of course, it is altogether proper that the Army should keep pace with the times. The attitude that advocates clinging to a manual typewriter rather than embracing computerized word processing, for example, is hardly what the Army needs in its 21st-century leaders. On the other hand, one should seriously and thoughtfully question what, indeed, it would mean for a leader to update his moral values. Some invention yet unconceived will one day replace the word processor and make it seem as antiquated as the manual typewriter now is. However, there is no reason to believe that the demands of morality will ever change. An appreciation of war's true purpose - to right wrongs and restore peace; a sense of justice tempered with the appropriate measure of mercy and forbearance; the ability to apply ethical principles to concrete situations without embracing situational ethics - these commitments and many others like them will still define proper human conduct long after the last word processor has found its way into an archeological museum. Such a claim is strong medicine in a social and, regrettably, political environment, in which the military is publicly castigated for being out of step with American culture at large because it embraces what some regard as outmoded moral values.

The same accusers argue that a military whose values do not reflect those embraced by large segments of a democratic society suffers from a diminished capacity to defend that society and perhaps should be considered an extremist organization rather than the nation's protector. To such critics, the words of Augustine come thundering down through the ages: if society at large, to include subjects, husbands, wives, parents and even taxpayers and tax gatherers truly would embrace moral virtue of the kind he exhorted soldiers to embrace, then the critics would find those virtues to be anything but incompatible with the state's well being. Rather, they would find, said Augustine, that "such virtue, if it were embraced, would be the salvation of the commonwealth."22

The sweeping and multitudinous changes in technology that distinguish the dawn of the 21st-century from the fifth century may obscure the reality that not everything has changed. The principles of moral military leadership are the same today as they were then. The virtues that those principles embody are not merely catchy little words in a list that sergeants need to know when they go before a promotion board or noncommissioned officer of the quarter board. They are not merely words for officers to spout off in academic requirements for military schools. They are ideals to live by and use as the measuring rods for every decision the military leader makes. But they are not ideals alone. They are ideals that must find their expression in the deeds of military leaders who seek to make a positive difference in the emerging world of tumult and change. MR

1. All references to Augustine are based on his collected works as they appear in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, trans. J.G. Cunningham, ed. Philip Schaff, First Series, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1956), especially Epistles XCIII, CXXXIII, CXXXVIII, CXXXIX, CLXXXIX, CCXX, CCXXII and CCXXIX. In some instances, the language of Augustine has been adapted to appeal to a broader military audience so that those with or without any particular disposition on theological matters might equally well sense and appreciate the modern-day relevance of his advice to military leaders.
2. Epistle CXXXVIII 1.3.
3. Ibid. 2.14.
4. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 87.
5. Epistle CXXXVIII 2.14.
6. Ibid. 2.12.
7. Ibid. 2.9.
8. Ibid. 2.11.
9. Ibid. 2.14.
10. Epistle XLXXXIX, written to Boniface; and Epistle CXXXIX, written to Marcellinus.
11. Epistle CLXXXIX 4.5.
12. Ibid. 7.
13. Ibid.
14. Epistle CXXXVIII 2.16.
15. Epistle CCXX 9, 10.
16. Epistle CLXXXIX 6.
17. Epistle XCIII 3.8.
18. US Army Field Manual 22-100, initial draft, Army Leadership (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 31 July 1990), 4-5 and 4-6.
19. Epistle CCXXII.
20. Epistle CCXXIX 2.
21. Ibid.
22. Epistle CXXXVIII 2.15.

Major John Mark Mattox is 1st Brigade fire support officer, 2d Battalion, 320th Field Artillery (FA) Regiment, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He received a B.A. from Brigham Young University, an M.A. from Indiana University and an M.M.A.S. from the US Army Command and General Staff College (CGSC). He has served in a variety of command and staff positions in the Continental United States, Saudi Arabia and Europe, including assistant professor of English, US Military Academy, West Point, New York; Bravo Battery commander, 2d Battalion, 320th FA Regiment, Fort Campbell; plans and operations officer, 2d Battalion, 320th FA during Operations Desert Shield/Storm, 101st Airborne Division, Saudi Arabia; and battalion adjutant, 2d Battalion, 5th FA Regiment, 1st Infantry Division (Forward), New Ulm, Germany. He was the first place winner in the CGSC 1998 MacArthur Leadership Award writing contest.